Specialization is dead

In 1938, Claude Shannon, a student at MIT, wrote a paper titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Switching and Relay Circuits”. You have never heard of it, but it is one of the most cited papers in the 20th century. And it is a prime example of the difference between you and all those legendary founders of unicorns.

Claude was a computer scientist before that was even a thing. Along with Alan Turing, he is largely regarded as one of the founding figures of computer science. A quite straight line can be drawn from him to the device you are reading this on, and that paper had a lot to do with it.

Claude was an electrical engineering student. His adviser had just whipped up prototype computer, complex for the time, remedial for today, called a differential analyzer. It was a device meant to control a mechanical system with a series of gates that let power flow or not flow to the intended device. If you know much about computers at all, this is really simple stuff. But at the time it had never been done. And that was the problem, Claude’s adviser’s prototype was very unorganized. Claude’s paper was all about organizing the system of gates. It was about applying logic.

This all seems elementary to us, but at the time, logic was not well known. In fact, it was an obscenely obscure topic. Claude only knew about it at all because he had happened to read a then 90 year old work by a little known philosopher named George Boole. Yes, Boole as in Boolean.

Lots of people have covered this story. The rise of logic is well documented. The interesting part that almost always gets skipped over quickly, is what precipitated Claude’s breakthrough. It wasn’t that he was the brightest of his class (he wasn’t), or the hardest working. It wasn’t because he ‘iterated’ rapidly, or because he had no fear of failing. None of the present day things we ascribe to greatness in the cult of silicon valley led to his breakthrough.

Simply put, Claude was widely read. He was an electrical engineer who had taken obscure philosophy courses. That is not to say that philosophy was the critical ingredient (for the record, I studied philosophy). Nor was it the electrical engineering. The genius came from the cross pollination.

“Specialization is for insects.” Or so wrote Robert Heinlein. He may have been on to something. Historians much removed will probably conclude that humanities greatest accomplishment in the 20th century was specialization. Going from artisans who crafted and curated every step of a product’s creation to assembly lines that broke apart complex processes fueled quite the rise in living standards. A good many of the advances of the last century were built on the foundation laid by specialization.

We’ve gone too far, though. Our education system and our general assumption is that one must become a subject matter expert to excel. Silicon valley idolizes relentless, focused, never-give-up heroes, but they are not the ones who generate so called ‘disruption.’

Disruption is, ultimately, merely a more elegant way of eliciting the age old directive, think outside the box. And thinking outside the box is simply an elegant way of prescribing a creative solution to a vexing problem. And creative doesn’t come from focus. Focus is the explicit act of thinking inside the box and no where else at all.

Claude was well read. He spent some of precious his time studying something completely unrelated to his primary field, and that turned out to be very valuable. None of his peers had read Boole’s work. It seemed unrelated. It wasn’t. Creative solutions are the result of cross pollination, of being exposed to some seemingly unrelated ideas.

How does this work, biologically? I am not a nueroscientist, but let me take a stab anyways. The human brain is not like a computer. It does not store information in tidy arrays. And it is not able to access specific information in isolation. Data in the brain is encoded onto neurons that fire in the presence of electrical activity. These neurons are located physically close to each other, but they are not arranged by topic. This means that very random memories can be stored quite close to each other. Accessing any given neuron is a messy process, and nearby neurons also get activated, and sometimes accidentally fire in addition to the intended neuron.

Most of the time, when two very different ideas fire at the same time and fill your consciousness together, it is meaningless. That’s how you end up ‘randomly’ thinking about an ex lover, or recalling some random fact completely out of context. But sometimes, there is serendipity in those two random ideas, and a novel connection is born. That is creative thinking. That is the genesis of disruption.

So, start reading something outside your usual stream. Take a course that is interesting to you but well outside your career. Expose yourself to a broader cross section of ideas and experiences. And then sit back and let the disruption flow.

(Bonus: Much ado is made these days about A.I. and the threat it may pose to humanity. A computer mind is far too organized and much too precise for this messy creative process to occur. It will beat our brains out at specialization, but it will never disrupt until it;s mind is organized more like ours. So don’t worry about A.I., until you hear someone decide to get messy with it’s data storage methodology…)

Written by Page Russell.

Follow me while I complain about stuff on twitter: @pagerussell

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